Kutya (Merry Orthodox Christmas!)

January 1st has come and gone. In many villages, towns, and cities, the curb sides are adorned with once-fresh Christmas trees still dripping with specks of remaining tinsel. Festive outside light displays go dark. The shopping frenzy is over and it is time to settle into the doldrums of winter.

But drive through the Coal Region and you will see holiday lights still ablaze on many homes and Christmas trees in the window throughout the first week of January. . Ask some people why they do this and their answer is, “It’s what we do…” The real reason is Orthodox Christmas.

Like many who grew up in the Coal Region, my family always kept our tree and decorations up until after January 7th in respect to those in the area of the Orthodox Christian faith. I had a couple classmates who would be absent from school that day as they celebrated “their Christmas”.

But why January 7th?

The Gregorian calendar places Christmas Day on Dec. 25, the date when most in the US celebrate. But Ukrainians and others whose roots are in the Orthodox churches whose spiritual leader is the Patriarch of Constantinople follow the Julian calendar. For them, Christmas falls on January 7, 13 days later than the Western world.

The practice is prevalent in Russia and the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe. In the Coal Region, where Eastern European immigrants made their homes before World War I, dedicated Orthodox Christians still uphold tradition with services Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Celebrating Christmas on January 7 dates back to 1582 when astronomy scientists during the Roman pope Gregory XIII’s era noticed a mistake in calculating the length of the Greek solar year.

Some technicalities

It was believed that the Greek solar year lasted for 365 days, and six hours, according to the Julian calendar, meaning that Christmas celebrations should take place on December 25. However, the celebration was re-dated to January 7 due to the Gregorian calendar established 400 years ago by Pope Gregory XIII. The Pope sought to correct a 10-day difference between the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar, and the solar calendar.

The pope dropped 10 days from October to make it correspond to the solar calendar. He also decreed that every fourth year have an extra day, making it a leap year.

This new calendar was not welcomed by the entire Christian world. Western countries follow the Gregorian calendar. In 1917, the Russian Bolsheviks started to use the Gregorian calendar, and soon after, in 1919, the Romanians accepted it under King Ferdinand’s reign. The last Christian country to accept this calendar was Greece, as it started to use it in 1923.

As a result, the Eastern Orthodox Christians were separated from the Western Catholic and Protestant Christians, since the Easterners celebrate Christmas on January 7th, and the Westerners celebrate it on December 25.

Some more differences

The festival is also celebrated differently by Orthodox Christians for whom Christmas Day is not focused so much on presents, eggnog or Christmas characters that have become popular through commercialization.  Christmas Day is a time to heal the soul. It is also a time of peace and unity.

Many observe a 40-day fast before Christmas as a way to renew their faith and relationship to God and avoid eating meat during the season. On Christmas Eve, they have a meal consisting of 12 meat-free dishes — one for each of the 12 apostles (although some families now pare that down). Dishes usually include sauerkraut and pierogi. Almost all Orthodox Christmas feasts include soup made with dried mushrooms and simmered for hours

The Christmas Eve dinner table is usually covered with white or embroidered tablecloth which symbolized the cloth that baby Jesus was wrapped in. Some people also use straw to decorate the table which symbolizes the stable where Jesus was born.

Candles may be lit to represent the light of Christ and the festive Christmas meal represents the end of fasting. One extra place setting is laid out to allow the spirits of the ancestors to also enjoy the feast along with the living.

Kutya, a dessert of cracked wheat, honey and poppy seed, is passed around the table. It is thought to have been eaten since pre-historic times. Kutya is a Lenten dish and no milk or egg products are used during that time.

Kutya is the first to be tasted of the twelve dishes served for the Christmas dinner. Everyone present must have at least a spoonful. Historically, the head of the household used kutya to foretell whether the upcoming year’s harvest would be plentiful and to bargain with the forces of nature for good weather; a spoonful is thrown at the ceiling. If it sticks, it predicts a good harvest in the coming year. (You might want to tape up newspaper on the ceiling before hand…)


Recipe by A Coalcracker in the KitchenCuisine: Eastern European, RussianDifficulty: Intermediate

A grain dish with sweet gravy traditionally served in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia during the Christmas Feast of Jordan holiday season.


  • ½ cup dry wheat berries (or other whole grain)

  • 4 plus cups water

  • 3/4 cup ground poppy seeds

  • 2/3 cup slivered almonds

  • 1/2 cup honey

  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped

  • 1/2 cup raisins

  • 1/2 cup dried tart cherries

  • ground cinnamon


  • Place wheat berries and water in a pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until the wheat is very tender (at least 3 hours). Be sure there is at least an inch of water covering the wheat berries at all times. A crock-pot set on low heat works very well for this.
  • Toast slivered almonds on a baking sheet at 350° for 3-5 minutes until light golden brown.
  • Drain the cooked wheat, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Add honey to the reserved liquid and stir well.
  • Mix all ingredients together. Bake uncovered at 325F degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes. Top with a dusting of ground cinnamon to taste. May be served either hot or cold.